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Torah Commentary
M'tzora (April 16, 2016)

Warren Klein, Curator, Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica

This week’s parashah can be a tough one to get through. It begins with the Lord speaking to Moses about the ritual for the leper, and the often strict and complicated dealings with lepers and bodily discharges always has left me feeling uneasy. Also, from the image of the High Priest sprinkling oil to the slaughtering of goats and birds, I find this parashah to feel distant. But then I reread the end of Chapter 14, which deals with the impurity of a physical space, particularly one’s home.

At first glance this section reads much like the beginning of the chapter, calling in the role of the priests and the different animal sacrifices to rid one’s home of impurities. Initially, thoughts came to mind about the terrible infections and diseases affecting parts of the world today that we read about in the news. But, a closer look at the text teaches us that these impurities likely refer to molds, rot and other fungi that often infected homes or structures in biblical times. According to the commentary on Leviticus by Baruch Levine, these “plagues” probably resembled the visual infections that physically plagued humans and were, therefore, thought to be contagious and hazardous to one’s health.

While we know today that these growths can make us physically sick, it is fascinating to me that even in biblical times the dangers and effects they had on our health were understood, even if just psychologically. It also is interesting to me that in Chapter 14, Verse 34, God says, “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house....” God is telling us that this plague comes from Him. I only can imagine reading this verse before modern science, wondering how God could let us enter the Promised Land and then inflict such an awful plague onto one’s home. Didn’t the Israelites go through enough of a journey already?

This made me think back to a few of the broadsides exhibited at the Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum in our 2013 exhibition The Writing on the Wall, Early Modern Broadsides From the Valmadonna Trust Library. Hundreds of years ago, and even as recent as the last century, many Jewish communities relied on amulets for protection against exactly what this verse is mentioning — household plagues or mold and other fungal growths. After fire, mold was likely the second most common issue homeowners faced. To remedy this, protective blessings and prayers were hung on walls to ward off harm.

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